Perhaps before our recent presidential election, Miss Sloane might have seemed like it was merely reiterating the cynicism of the paranoid political thrillers that were in vogue during the 1970s. A week after, though, the distrust of government at the core of John Madden’s film carries an almost cathartic charge—a breezily entertaining release valve for the frustrations many are feeling about the United States, what with a businessman and reality television star set to inhabit the highest political office in the land.
Not that Miss Sloane doesn’t have merits beyond topical relevance. Chief among them is Jessica Chastain, who brings to the role of Elizabeth Sloane the same granitic strength and subtle vulnerability that distinguished her performance as Maya, the similarly tenacious C.I.A. intelligence analyst from Zero Dark Thirty. But while it would be a stretch to call Sloane a multifaceted character (she has little interior life beyond her desire for victory), Chastain vividly conveys the relish with which the woman approaches her tasks, managing to find emotional nuances all throughout the film to occasionally complicate our view of Sloane as a one-dimensional political shark.
Right in the film’s opening scene, when Sloane, in voiceover and then in a direct, straight-ahead close-up, discusses the kind of ruthless tactical acumen it takes to succeed as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Chastain delivers her lines in a palpably rote manner that implies a level of exhaustion that the screenplay suggests Sloane feels toward her line of work. It’s an ennui that, elsewhere, she’s able to cover up with her vigorous motormouth; her energy level is occasionally heightened by the uppers she frequently takes. Such questions about what exactly drives Sloane to do this work are almost always left cloudy in Jonathan Perera’s screenplay—and it’s that enigmatic nature that holds one’s interest throughout, even as the film veers into pat moralism.
The plot revolves around Sloane’s efforts to help a smaller firm defeat an anti-gun-control bill supported by her previous, much bigger firm. That focus on the “right” side of the gun-control issue puts Madden’s film somewhat in the territory of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, another drama about behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. In Spielberg’s film, however, there was never any doubt as to the ultimate worthiness of the flagrant manipulation on display in Lincoln. By contrast, Miss Sloane isn’t afraid to offset the nobility of Sloane’s chosen cause by seriously questioning her motives and methods.
Why Sloane is so interested in gun control above all other issues is one thing that’s never fully explained, either by her or by the film itself. As for her means, not only is she willing to use secret surveillance methods against her opponents, she also shows barely any hesitancy to shamelessly exploit even her closest allies to achieve her goals, especially Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), which is heartbreaking given Esme’s personal history with gun violence. Madden’s film more interestingly swims in the ambiguity of whether such near-sociopathic means are acceptable for the sake of a greater good.
The film, though, isn’t willing to go all the way with that ambiguity, as proven by the ridiculous climax that goes so far as to not only paint Sloane’s maneuvering in a more positive light, but also posit her as a kind of super-lobbyist with a god-like knack for being a step ahead of everybody. But even if Miss Sloane finally goes in the direction of extravagant wish-fulfillment, the sting of what Sloane represents in the D.C. landscape still resonates.